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Parliament (Amendment) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:51 pm on 4th March 2011.

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Second Reading

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 2:05 pm, 4th March 2011

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill follows on from a ten-minute rule Bill that had the support of the House earlier this Session. Although I say it myself, the timing of this Second Reading is perfect, because it follows Royal Assent being given to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill;
the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is still being discussed in the other place;
and the Government have not yet produced their draft Bill on reform of the other place, although they keep saying that such a Bill will be introduced imminently.

My Bill would ensure that the number of people sitting and voting in the other place did not exceed the number of elected Members in this place. As a result of the passing of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, from the next general election, anticipated to be in May 2015, there will be only 600 Members in this House. That reduction was made not least to save public money. I see no case whatever for the other place having more than 600 unelected Members.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about the timing of his Bill. He referred to the Government’s proposals on House of Lords reform, which are being drafted and which we will publish shortly. Is it not therefore premature of him to have brought forward his proposals about numbers? Given that his Bill has no mechanism for achieving those numbers, would it not be better for him to participate fully in the scrutiny of our draft Bill to achieve the effect that he desires?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I hope to be able to do that as well. My hon. Friend will not have failed to notice that my Bill would come into force on 1 May 2015, so it is forward looking, like much of the material that I bring before the House. I do not think that his is an adequate objection to the Bill. I hope that the measures in clause 1 will be in the draft Bill that the Government talk about bringing forward; I would have thought it unconscionable for the Government to propose that the other place have more than 600 Members. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will be prepared to accept clause 1.

Clause 2 deals with the number of Ministers in the House of Commons. Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, the maximum number is 95. As has been accepted by the Government—this point is supported strongly on both sides of the Chamber and in the other place—if we reduce the number of members of the legislature, we should also reduce the number of members of the Executive; otherwise, the balance between the Executive and the legislature gets out of kilter. Indeed, that was a recommendation of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, of which I am privileged to be a member, in our report last October. We said:

“It is self-evident that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will increase the dominance of the Executive over Parliament if the number of Ministers sitting and voting in the

House is not correspondingly reduced. This is a matter of constitutional importance that goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the House.”

This very day the Government have responded to the Committee’s recommendations. Cmd 7997 states:

“The Government remains committed to strengthening Parliament in relation to the Executive…We have been clear that we accept the principle that there is a link between the legislature and the size of the executive.”

So we are making progress.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

My hon. Friend is making a sound argument, which I totally support. May I draw his attention to the business listed for Wednesday 7 September 2011? It includes the Second Reading of my House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill, which would remove a number of Ministers at a stroke, and they happen to be in the Whips Office.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I had the privilege of listening to my hon. Friend when he made a very powerful speech introducing that Bill under the ten-minute rule. Nothing in my Bill cuts across or undermines anything in his Bill, which I hope will make swift progress when it comes before the House.

The Government’s argument against clause 2 of my Bill is given in paragraph 91 of today’s Command Paper:

“There is no immediate need to resolve this issue, since the provisions relating to a reduced number of MPs will not take effect until 2015. The Government therefore intends to reflect on the arguments made during the passage of this Bill”— the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

“and set out its plans once there is greater clarity on the composition of the second Chamber, including how many Ministers could be drawn from there.”

It seems as though the Government are moving in the same direction, but clause 2 of my Bill would be a bit more of a nudge in that direction. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that the matter will be resolved during this Parliament. I certainly remain concerned about that.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government and now the Boundary Commission are pressing on speedily with reviewing the legislature. Indeed, the Boundary Commission has, also today, published its new electoral quotas and confirmed the numbers of seats for each of the countries in the United Kingdom. It has also said that it intends to produce its provisional recommendations this autumn. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government are pressing on so quickly with the reduction in the legislature, they should at the same time look at the Executive?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. This is very important because we do not want the issue of how large the Executive will be to be left to the Executive to decide after the next general election. I think that the balance between the size of the Executive and the size of the legislature should be for the legislature to decide. If we are to have a smaller legislature, we need to impose a smaller Executive well in advance of the next election.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Is not one danger of having a smaller number of MPs to scrutinise the Government while also having an ever-increasing Executive that there will be more and more demand from people to split the powers and take the Executive out of the House of Commons? That would be a wrong move, but it is a danger because of the direction in which the Government are heading.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

As so often, my hon. Friend is probably on to a good point; one can almost read between the lines of the Command Paper to which I referred, which seems to suggest that the Government might increase the number of Ministers in the other place as a quid pro quo.

We need to put limits on the number of Ministers in this House. I suggest 80. At present, the maximum is 95. If we can have a leaner civil service and public sector, we can also have a leaner Government in terms of the number of Members who hold ministerial office, so I commend clause 2 to the House.

Clause 3 deals with Parliamentary Private Secretaries. At present, there is no limit on their number. Bearing in mind that they are used as lobby fodder, have responsibilities to their Ministers and are appointed by the Prime Minister and that if they step out of line by so much as supporting one of my Bills on a Friday their career as a PPS is at an end, we should give them recognition in statute and limit their number. I suggest that

“no more than 25 persons being the holders of the office of Parliamentary Private Secretary shall be entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time.”

That would be roughly one PPS to each Secretary of State, which would be more than ample.

The provision would not stop the Government doing what they do at the moment, which is to appoint people who are not given the title of Parliamentary Private Secretary; they are advisers, deputy chairmen or vice-chairmen of the party or they have a special responsibility in this or that Department—all part of the patronage system. The Bill would not stop that, but it would at least prevent the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries from increasing as it is at the moment. A side-effect of my proposal is that we would have to put on the public record who the Parliamentary Private Secretaries are and where they are; at the moment, that information is not easily available.

Clause 4 deals with ministerial office in the other place, to try to ensure that we do not end up with a bloated Executive there after any reforms that may be introduced. Although the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, tells us that there will be a draft Bill, who would be so bold as to put their money on its being enacted before the next general election? I suspect the odds might be similar to those on Ireland beating England at cricket the other day.

Clause 4 is important because the provision that states that

“Not more than 10% of those persons who are entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords at any one time shall be the holders of Ministerial offices” will apply even if there has been no reform of the other place before the next general election. I thought 10% was a generous quota; if there were 600 Members, there would be a maximum of 60 Ministers in the other place.

Of course, there is no point in limiting the number of Ministers if we cannot also limit the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the other place, so clause 5 would provide that not more than 3% of those

“who are entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords at any one time shall be holders of the office of Parliamentary Private Secretary.”

This is a short, straightforward, easily understood and transparent piece of legislation.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I think my hon. Friend is about to reach a conclusion. Before he does so, will he tell us whether he has had a letter of support for the Bill from the Prime Minister? The measure is entirely in line with the Prime Minister’s very powerful speech of 26 May 2009—“Fixing broken politics” .

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I have not got a copy, but I am sure that if we give the Minister a chance to speak he will quote from the Prime Minister’s letter of support. I am sure that the Prime Minister is on our side. We are members of the legislature; he is, for the time being, the leader of the Executive, but he recognises the importance of the legislature having a bigger role in holding the Executive to account, and the Bill is designed to achieve that.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:25 pm, 4th March 2011

It is a great pleasure to speak to the Bill, which has many interesting features and merits. It originates in its recent form from a new clause that was proposed to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. [ Interruption. ] Yes, it is now an Act. I am being heckled already, which does not bode well for the rest of these proceedings.

Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I voted for that new clause, which was moved by Mr Walker on 25 October last year. Speaking for the Opposition on that occasion, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant said:

“if the Government plan to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons and do not plan to cut the number of Ministers, surely that will increase the influence of the Government—the Executive—over Parliament. I wholeheartedly support the argument that Mr Walker made this evening.”

Indeed, he added quite eloquently that

“if we are going to cut one group, we should cut the other. That is entirely in line with the new clause.”—[Hansard, 25 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 114-117.]

Unfortunately, despite the assistance of Mr Chope and a number of his colleagues, that new clause was defeated by 241 votes to 293, and it led the next day to his proposing his ten-minute rule Bill, in which he commented on the Government’s attitude towards the new clause and, indeed, his Bill. I found it quite distressing to read that he talked about his hon. Friends who supported the new clause being

“dragged away to the Whips Office to be dealt with.”

I am glad that that sort of thing would never happen in the Labour party.

I realise that the Bill would go further than the original new clause, but the spirit of that new clause is in the Bill. If changes are to be made to the legislature—we strongly disapprove of those changes—it is only right that we address the issue of the Executive at the same time, and I note in reading the Library paper on limiting the number of Ministers and the size of the payroll vote that, over the past 13 years, Government Members have made several attempts to do so. Whether it is significant that they made those attempts when they were in opposition I do not know, but they include figures as illustrious as the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

While the hon. Gentleman is developing his point, will he include in his remarks the view that the Labour party took when it was in government about those attempts to shrink the Executive?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister is tempting me, and we only have relatively few minutes left. I am sure that the House would wish to hear the Government’s response to the hon. Member for Christchurch, so I will not go through the list of attempts and Bills and the response to them, as I am not sure whether that would profit us much. I thought that it would be uncontroversial to say that the hon. Gentleman is following an honourable tradition of Government Members who have addressed this issue. I, like him, would be surprised if the Minister does not warmly welcome the Bill and, indeed, say that it has the Prime Minister’s support.

This certainly is not the time to revive the discussions about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, save to say that the basis of that shoddy constitutional legislation and compensatory gerrymander was a tawdry deal done between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives when they asked, “How many seats are we getting off you? How many seats are we going to take off them?” But that Bill had, as all such pieces of cloak and dagger legislation are likely to have, consequences, whether intended or unintended. When the boundary commissions for the four constituent countries publishes their target seats, excepting the little favours being done to Liberal Members in the north of Scotland and Conservative Members in the Isle of Wight, it is likely that we shall have reduced numbers, and the necessary measures for that are to be rushed through in great haste, so it seems only fair and logical that the issue of the Executive is addressed at the same time.

I referred to the speech that the hon. Member for Christchurch made on his ten-minute rule Bill on the subject, when he alluded not only to the overall reduction in the legislature—that is, this House—but to the plans by the Government to go on increasing the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers. By the hon. Gentleman’s estimation, that would mean that it was the coalition’s

“policy to increase the number of Members of the House of Lords by no fewer than 250, which is absolute lunacy”—[Hansard, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 201-204.]

Again, it is a method of increasing by unstraightforward measures the influence that a party or parties have in the two Houses. From the Opposition’s point of view, that seems to be grossly unfair, and the consequences should be addressed.

I could go on a lot longer, but in view of the time, I shall allow the Minister to start his remarks, although I expect that he will not finish them today. It would be useful for him to say why he would not be prepared at least to allow the Bill into Committee so that we could have an open discussion about the power, the role and the size of the Executive, as he and his colleagues forced the House to have about the legislature.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 2:27 pm, 4th March 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Chope on bringing this Bill, as well as the Further and Higher Education (Access) Bill, before the House on one Friday. Thinking back to the time when he and I were in opposition, I do not remember him being as keen for private Members’ Bills to make progress as he is when his own name is attached to them. I seem to remember that he was keen for them to make little progress.

The speech from Mr Slaughter was probably the shortest Friday speech that I have ever heard from him. He used to wax lyrical on Fridays.

One of my hon. Friend’s key points in his opening remarks on the Bill was how widely those views were shared. I note that his Bill has 11 supporters on both sides of the House. I looked carefully around the House as my hon. Friend was setting out his case. He may correct me if I am wrong, but I did not manage to spy a single one of the 11 supporters of the Bill who had troubled themselves to attend the House today to lend their support in person. My hon. Friend Mr Bone is looking at me askance, but I look carefully at the names on the Bill and I do not see his name among them.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I and other Members were eager to sign our names to the Bill, but unfortunately there was no space. We would probably have had about 100 names on it otherwise.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I take my hon. Friend’s point, but if he is correct—I have no reason to think otherwise—about the incredible support for the Bill, it is surprising that of the 11 Members who beat him in getting their names attached to the Bill, none of them have troubled themselves to be here. Given that my hon. Friend has taken the trouble to be present, he might want to have a conversation with some of those who supported the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Is that my hon. Friend’s best point?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

No. Those were simply my opening remarks. I have many excellent points of substance, to which I shall now turn.

I will start by picking up on the points that my hon. Friend made on these exact subjects during the progress of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. He started very generously by referring to the number of Ministers in this House and accurately quoted the Government’s view, which is that we had said—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 28 October.